With every step forward that women in Afghanistan take, violent incidents highlight the fact many still struggle for basic human rights eight years after the ouster of the conservative Taliban regime.
In a speech commemorating International Women's Day on Sunday, President Hamid Karzai challenged Afghan religious leaders to denounce violence against women and reject traditional practices that treat women as property.
"The forced marriages, the selling of women — these are against Islam," Karzai told some 600 women gathered in a high school auditorium in the capital, Kabul.
The Taliban government that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 forced women to stay at home and banned them from appearing in public without a body-covering burqa.
There have surely been improvements, as the article details (it's an AP article, and they are very picky about having those reprinted). Thank heavens for that.
But that is not the end of the story. The same day President Karzai was speaking to this group of women, a woman, a widow, set herself on fire to escape the poverty in which she lived, and from which she saw no escape:
The incident occurred in an area where scores of women have killed themselves by self-immolation to escape abuse, forced marriages or other oppressive customs. As a widow, Bibi would have been on the bottom rung of traditional Afghan society — undesirable for marriage and unemployable because of her gender.
Even in the cities, where women have made great strides in employment and recognition, there are signs of backsliding in recent years. Karzai noted in his speech that the number of women working in government ministries has actually dropped to 21 percent from an earlier figure of 32 percent.
A U.N. report this week on human rights in Afghanistan said that "threats and intimidation against women in public life or who work outside the home have seen a dramatic increase."
Things are getting better in some ways for women, but too much is still the same, or getting worse.
And not just in Afghanistan, unfortunately, but in Iraq in which mothers are selling their daughters into prostitution (H/T to Cheneywatch.com). This TIME article describes the far-reaching extent of this practice, with many of the daughters not yet teenagers, some going to our close friends in the Middle East. For the sake of space, I am not reprinting the whole article here, but I urge you to read it all:
...That underworld is a place where nefarious female pimps hold sway, where impoverished mothers sell their teenage daughters into a sex market that believes females who reach the age of 20 are too old to fetch a good price. The youngest victims, some just 11 and 12, are sold for as much as $30,000, others for as little as $2,000. "The buying and selling of girls in Iraq, it's like the trade in cattle," Hinda (an undercover human rights worker) says. "I've seen mothers haggle with agents over the price of their daughters."
The trafficking routes are both local and international, most often to Syria, Jordan and the Gulf (primarily the United Arab Emirates). The victims are trafficked illegally on forged passports, or "legally" through forced marriages. A married female, even one as young as 14, raises few suspicions if she's travelling with her "husband." The girls are then divorced upon arrival and put to work. (See Iraq's return to "normalcy".)
Nobody knows exactly how many Iraqi women and children have been sold into sexual slavery since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, and there are no official numbers because of the shadowy nature of the business. Baghdad-based activists like Hinda and others put the number in the tens of thousands. Still, it remains a hidden crime; one that the 2008 US State Department's Trafficking in Persons Report says the Iraqi government is not combating. Baghdad, the report says, "offers no protection services to victims of trafficking, reported no efforts to prevent trafficking in persons and does not acknowledge trafficking to be a problem in the country."
Mere children are being sold into sexual slavery in Iraq, and it has gotten WORSE under our watch. Sadly there is more, horrifying information in this article, but Hinda's experience is pertinent:
Hinda the activist-investigator also knows what's its like to be betrayed by family and considered human merchandise. Raped at 16, she was disowned by her family and left homeless. In many parts of the Arab world, the stigma of compromised chastity, even if it was stolen, is such that victims are at best outcasts and at worst killed for "dishonoring" their family or community. Desperate and destitute, Hinda turned to prostitution.
Now 33, she is using her knowledge of the industry to infiltrate trafficking rings across the country. She gathers information about the victims, where they are from, how much they're sold for and who is buying them. Most often she poses as a buyer for overseas clients, a cover that enables her to snap pictures of victims and claim that they are for her potential customers. She drags out the negotiations for several days, knowing that the victims are usually sold during that period. Playing a disappointed pimp helps keep her cover intact, she says. She can't rescue the girls, but the hope is that when the government decides to take trafficking seriously, her work and that of others will eventually help prosecute offenders and identify victims. She moves away from each trafficking ring as quickly as she can. To linger would be to invite suspicion.
But these days, she says suspicion is getting harder to avoid. She has been beaten before, by the security guards of pimps who suspect her of encouraging young victims to escape or offering them help. But in the past week she has received several death threats, some so frightening and persistent that she penned a farewell letter to her mother. "I'm scared. I'm scared that I'll be killed," she says, wiping away her tears. "But I will not surrender to that fear. If I do it means I've given up and I won't do that. I have to work to stop this."
So do we. But not just in Iraq, or Afghanistan. We, too, have a government that needs to work to stop this abuse of women. I have written before about domestic violence, and rape, but in more general terms. Today, though, it will be more specific. Today, I speak out for our women in the military. Yes, I said the women in our military. More than 1 in 4 women, officers and enlisted, are either raped or sexually assaulted. More than 25% of our women in uniform are sexually assaulted. And they are assaulted by fellow military personnel (96%). These women are putting their lives on the line for US, and while in the service of our country, over 25% are assaulted in the most horrendous way possible for a woman (at least in my opinion).
The statistics above came from a House panel on Friday, March 7, 2009. Again, thanks to Cheneywatch.com for bringing these to my attention. If you do not have time to watch all 4 of them, please watch the first one:
I am sickened by this, absolutely sickened. But it is cultural, unfortunately, here in the States. Valuing men above women, using women as a means to an end, using women as objects, treating them with callous disregard and with violence.
In our military, where women go to serve their nation, too, too many are being subjected to the most despicable form of violence, taking something by force that can never be returned, and from which most never fully recover. By their contemporaries. With whom they are forced to remain in contact. Can you even begin to imagine the psychological effects this has on them?
We saw the most qualified person, a woman, with the majority of support by members of her party, forced to concede her victory to a lesser qualified, far more inexperienced man. This was able to happen because of the tacit acceptance of rampant sexism and outright misogyny (as a reminder - misogyny means HATRED of women), perpetrated by men in that party and in the media, as well as from the women who wanted, no, craved, men's approval. It is a matter of degrees, and in this country, we have made it quite clear - even the very best, most qualified women are not as good, not as WORTHY, as the worst of con men with little to offer.
And this has effects on all of us. The lessons it teaches us, our daughters, our nieces, our grandchildren, is that they are less than, they are tools to be used, they are objects. Like Afghanistan and Iraq, while some strides may be made, there is always a price to be paid, and too many women in our country, in our military, are paying that price. That is simply unacceptable, and it must stop. Now.